He founded the country's first LGBT rights group—now Amir Ashour is planning his political careerby Serena Kutchinsky / November 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
“Help me prove that ISIS and other extremists don’t represent all Muslims, and that many Muslims actively promote peace and equality.” The sentiments of many in the wake of the brutal terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, but the words of one young man, Amir Ashour, who is determined to turn rhetoric into reality. Ashour is the founder of IraQueer—Iraq’s first, and only, LGBT organisation that provides support and legal advice to this hounded community. But his ambitions stretch further—he is determined to become his country’s first openly gay Prime Minister.
Ashour’s interest in gay rights activism was sparked at university in Iraq. After graduating he worked for several US-based human and gay rights charities, but always aspired to start his own movement focused specifically on the problems within Iraq. He first took on the role of spokesperson for his country’s beleaguered LGBT community at last year’s One Young World Summit—an annual gathering of intimidatingly brilliant “future leaders” in politics, business and human rights. A clip of his speech was played at the start of this year’s summit in Bangkok, which welcomed 1,500 representatives from 196 countries, where his words highlighted the need now more than ever for young people to fight back against the hate and fear unleashed by IS and other extremists.
Iraq was a difficult place to be gay even before Islamic State began waging war on homosexuals by hurling them off buildings or stoning them to death. Although same sex relationships are decriminalized, they are still considered taboo by the majority of the population. The gay community has been forced even further underground since the fall of Saddam in 2003, with discrimination, honour killings and murderous attacks increasing according to a report by the BBC among others. In 2012, an investigation by the government of the Netherlands found that LGBT Iraqis faced “serious risks” to their lives and safety and offered asylum to anyone seeking refuge. The situation has worsened even in the past two months, according to Ashour, who himself has received several death threats; “being gay in Iraq right now could literally kill you,” he said.
IraQueer is run from Sweden where Ashour now lives, although the rest of its members operate anonymously inside Iraq. He is now able to speak openly and use his relative freedom to promote his cause. Ashour’s perspective on the Paris attacks is that the closing of borders across Europe will make life even harder for LGBT people inside Iraq who are among those fleeing persecution.
The weakness of Iraq’s official government has created a power vacuum in the country, sparking the rise not only of IS but also different Shia militas which have carried out what Ashour describes as “killing campaigns” against homosexuals and sex workers on an annual basis since 2013. “Saddam had problems with people who were against him in general. So being gay with no political agenda wasn’t something his regime would be interested in,” he said. “Having no real authorities in Iraq makes it easier for the [Shia] militias to practice their beliefs, and extremism—some of which go directly against the Iraqi constitution. The government also has to deal with so many other problems like terrorism, the economy and corruption that there is even less space to talk about human rights in general, but especially those of the LGBTIQ+ community.”
Like any future world leader in the digital age, Ashour used social media to spread his message and enlist volunteers. “I even used Tinder, the dating app,” he recalled, “to contact people and ask if they’d be interested in joining something like IraQueer. We didn’t even have a name for it then… Now, we have members who are as young as 17 years old who are taking a mature decision to join the most dangerous movement you could be affiliated with in Iraq. We even have a couple of members who are straight, but believe in equality and human rights for everyone.”
But, what of Ashour’s own political ambitions? While the growing success of IraQueer has raised his profile in the west, it doesn’t seem the most obvious route to power inside Iraq under the current regime, especially since even more liberal western countries have yet to elect an openly gay leader. “No country will ever be ready for a gay Prime Minister—we will make them ready… In Iraq people always say that if the US or UK is not doing something then why would we do it? But, I say—why not be the pioneers? Iraq is not ready yet but I am only 25 so I’m not going to run for office for at least another 20 years. Maybe I won’t succeed at first but I will keep trying until I do.”